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Microsoft dispatches phone OEMs to knife Bluetooth

Barmy Army circles waggons against Nokia

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If you live outside the UK you probably haven't heard of Sendo, the upstart British cellphone manfacturer which, after the fashion of Atari, has adopted an Oriental name, even though its roots are firmly Arthur-Whitebread Occidental. It's based in Birmingham, Warwickshire, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But the 260-strong company is worth keeping tabs on for several reasons, primarily because it's the first to appreciate the Dell-ification of the mobile phone business.

Sendo, which was founded by grand fromages defecting from Motorola and Philips only two years ago, has anticipated the shifts in the handset market as it turns into a commodity business, and has cut its cloth accordingly. It's also had the nous to invest in its own software, so its pile-em-high, cheap and cheerful voice handsets don't look like the kind of mass produced PC clones that stay determinedly unsold in PC superstores.

But where you really should be interested is in Sendo's role as the vanguard of Microsoft's Stinger smartphone initiative. The Beast has a 15 per cent stake in Sendo, which in London today dropped the latest details of its Stinger-based Z100 phone.

The spec sheet is awesome, bar one omission which we'll come to in a moment. The Sendo Z100 will be a triband GSM/GPRS (4 down, 1up) phone, with USB, a speakerphone, and a 176x220 64k colour screen. A MIDP-compliant JVM, which Microsoft itself can't supply, and an adaptor for MMC and SD cards. It's fabulous, and will beat Symbian devices to market by several months. What more could you want?

Um, well what about Bluetooth?

Bluetooth is only available as an accessory, and the phone won't come with a Bluetooth chipset. Why not, we wondered? Because it's crap, said Sendo co-founder Hugh Brogan (in so many words). What he actually said was:

"It spoils the experience," he said. "Everybody inteprets the specification differently. We're going for interoperability and it wasn't that we couldn't make Bluetooth work, but the user experience with Bluetooth is poor." It also adds cost and weight to the phone, he added.

We asked if Microsoft had actually offered a mature Bluetooth stack as an option to Sendo. Hugh didn't answer, but he reckoned there was no such thing as a mature Bluetooth stack anyway. Hmmm.

Puppets

"We're not Microsoft puppets," Brogan told El Reg. Half of the software in the Z100 was Sendo's, and half was Microsoft's, and The Beast's long-standing antipathy towards Bluetooth had in no way, absolutely not, influenced Sendo in its decision ot refrain from including Bluetooth in the device itself.

Microsoft has a long-history of trying to derail Bluetooth, either in the SIG's standards committee, or in public. For very good, selfish reasons; as a network of interoperable Bluetooth devices shifts the centre of gravity for electronic transactions away from the cumbersome desktop PC, and into your hand, forever. And if you had a desktop PC monopoly, you'd be doing your best to kill Bluetooth, too.

But this encapsulates quite neatly the problems and opportunities that a Microsoft phone OEM faces. It doesn't really matter how keenly an OEM signs up to the proposition, Microsoft essentially doesn't need to win the smartphone war. It only needs to draw - and to prevent the Nokias of the world from winning. For a draw is as good as a win if it can continue to funnel consumers through the desktop PC franchise, rather than through phones or other handheld devices.

But as a phone OEM it can't exactly fill you with confidence when your primary system software supplier has so little interest in seeing the platform succeed, can it?

We asked Brogan if he was tempted by the Nokia platform offering that the Finns announced at Comdex, which gives licensees the source code to produce a knock-off Nokia clone.

Why, he retorted, would consumers buy either of the two if they were offered side-by-side?

Because um, we ventured, because Nokia makes great phones? And because it's a trusted phone brand?

Pah.

Hugh sincerely believes that Microsoft can produce a better phone than Nokia. Maybe, maybe he's right. Users can place their own bets, and in six months we'll be able to compare the two, and see who has the better judgement. ®

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